The Film Forward initiative is designed to create change in the UK film industry by supporting experienced Black, Asian or minority ethnic professionals to advance into more senior roles.
Aamir is stepping up from LX rigger/design in live events to LX design in film.
Aamir Riaz is keen to turn his skills to film after working for more than a decade as a rigger and designer on high-profile live events, from Edinburgh’s Hogmanay to stadium tours and festival sets for Biffy Clyro, Take That and Kanye West.
“I’ve always wanted to do more film. With rock ‘n’ roll you’re building one big system and adapting it to fit a venue – albeit with various challenges - but with film and TV every day presents different demands. You have to be really good at problem-solving, which is what I enjoy.”
Aamir, 31, has had some experience in screen lighting – he was temporarily pulled on to Bond movie Spectre to cover a friend, and more recently worked on historical TV drama series Outlander and Demi Moore’s Welsh-based NBC sci fi adaptation Brave New World.
“Ideally I would like some form of hybrid between live events and film. The problem is the two are very segregated and there’s no crossover. You chat to people and they say, ‘we’ll keep you in mind’, but of course people are busy and have a pool of guys they draw on. It’s frustrating to know you have the skillset to do it and just need the opportunity.”
That’s where ScreenSkills’ new Film Forward scheme comes in. A paid placement programme for mid-career professionals from underrepresented backgrounds, it aims to provide a step up into new roles.
Born and raised in Scotland, of Pakistani heritage, Aamir notes how the industry as a whole can often seem disconnected: “When I moved to London for a bit, there was a big pool of Pakistani and Indian technicians but they worked very specifically at Asian weddings or in Bollywood films.
“I remember working on a Bollywood movie filmed at Prestwick Airport, and I walked on to set the first day expecting it to be a predominantly white crew, as was usual for me. The fact that it wasn’t was a big first! I suspect it’s due to exposure to the industry – I work in something totally removed and different from the rest of my family. And I was only exposed to it myself because of a very particular set of circumstances.”
Aamir describes himself as “one of those people that fell into the industry by accident”. Serendipity led him to a career he had never even heard of, let alone thought about.
At 15, he moved to a new school in Glasgow, where the pupil charged with helping him to settle in happened to be involved with the school show, a version of The Wizard of Oz.
By chance, the production had professional sound and lighting design – the drama teacher’s friend ran one of Scotland’s leading firms. When the company then offered summer placements to students keen to try, Aamir decided to give it a go.
“By the second weekend I was side of stage at T in the Park watching the Red Hot Chili Peppers and thought, yeah, this isn’t bad at all.”
He continued to work for the company during school holidays until the age of 18 – learning crucial skills along the way. “All my training has been done on the job, other than the certification I’ve needed to supplement it.”
Even then, the notion of pursuing lighting design as a career didn’t come into the equation. Instead, he went to university to study law, which he completed with honours, although he confesses it was “to make my mum and dad happy”.
At the same time, he supplemented has income as a freelance lighting rigger, working everywhere from venues such as Edinburgh Corn Exchange to corporate events and large-scale music concerts.
“I’d thought of lighting design as a side job but in the end realised I really enjoyed it. I loved the technical aspect, building something with my hands, bringing lots of skills together to create something – structural engineering, networking, controlling the lights. I still love pulling all those different elements together.”
One head-turning highlight was working the Tenacious C gig at Glasgow’s S.E.C.C. – “just because the lighting designer was out of this world, what he was doing was ridiculous in any other setting”. He recalls: “One of the things they had was a giant phoenix in the shape of a man’s member, with confetti flying out of it. You’d never get away with that anywhere else.”
Now 13 years into his career, he has toured extensively with a wide range of big-name artists and events. Most recently, he worked on the lighting for the New York Times Climate Hub at COP26, designed by Es Devlin.
The vision now is a career that combines the excitement of live gigs with the more varied work of film. Working on location also appeals, as opposed to always touring. “I’d be moving sideways from a part of the industry where the same kit is used, but the implementation varies. I want to learn more about how the gaffer decides what he wants, and how the best boy chooses to implement that.”
Aamir hopes to begin his Film Forward placement in the New Year, following a stint working on Saudi music festival SOUNDSTORM.
As for the future: “In five years’ time I’d like to be working in both live and screen. I managed to get my foot in the door of the screen industry this past year by taking on work as a covid supervisor – usually crews can be very tight-knit and you only get in if you know someone who knows someone. But hopefully Film Forward will help me to make that move more permanent.”
Aamir is a highly expert lighting rigger and designer with more than 12 years’ experience working in live events. Based in Glasgow – but happy to travel – he has a CV spanning large-scale gigs, concerts, festivals, sporting events and touring, from Kanye West to Florence and the Machine, Edinburgh’s annual Hogmanay and the Es Devlin-designed New York Times hub for COP26. In screen, he has worked on Outlander and NBC’s Brave New World, and is well-versed in a range of equipment, looking to apply his skillset to film and TV. Aamir specialises in networks and dimmers, working both as a spark and a rigging desk op, and enjoys working across a range of roles, from managing 3 phase power and distribution to setting up wireless mesh networks for easy desk operation.